By Kelly Laycock
Unless you work in publishing or design, it is entirely possible that you’ve managed to live a completely full life without ever needing to know what these different dashes are all about, but I’m here to tell you that they exist and are actually all around you, whether you know it or not. I hope by the end of this post, you not only know their names but also agree that your writing will benefit by understanding their uses.
In fact, there is a whole range of dashes—from hyphens to triple ems—that are extremely useful in all sorts of writing. In addition to the rules of use, which are pretty much settled in most cases, there are also preferences of style to consider, and each style guide will have a preference. There are many excellent references out there, and I’ve included links throughout this post for further reading.
The smallest of the dashes, used for the formation of compound terms.
Soft hyphen “…appears at the end of a line of text to indicate that a word continues on the next line….The epithet ‘soft’ refers to the fact that the hyphen must disappear should the entire word fall on one line. The placement of a soft hyphen is governed by the syllabication of the word and various conventions regarding line breaks; for example, it is incorrect to strand a single letter of a word at the end or the beginning of a line of text.” (The Copyeditor’s Handbook, p.106.)
Hard hyphen “…used to join certain compound words (e.g., self-respect). The epithet ‘hard’ indicates that the hyphen must always appear in print, even when the hyphenated term appears on one line.” (The Copyeditor’s Handbook, p.107)
The rules of hard hyphenation in compound terms is determined by the dictionary you use. There are variations in preference between open compounds (car wash), hyphenated compounds (eye-opener) or closed compounds (lifestyle). The general trend in language change is from open compound to hyphenated, and eventually the hyphens fall to the wayside and become closed compounds. Each dictionary chooses its preferred spelling, and there is no way of knowing without checking.
Unfortunately, compound adjectives are not usually found in the dictionary, mostly because they aren’t set-in-stone phrases, but rather embody the creative side of language use (notice the use of set-in-stone as an adjective phrase). The Chicago Manual of Style has a particularly thorough guide available. Here are some examples:
a fifty-five-year-old woman
but seven years old
but his tie is emerald green
an a priori argument (foreign terms, such as Latin, are italicized but not hyphenated)
a three-inch-high statue
but the statue is three inches high
but three hundred twenty-eight
Note: Compound adjectives with an -ly ending never use a hyphen, unless they are part of a larger compound adjective:
This is a poorly produced movie.
He followed up with a not-so-poorly-produced sequel.
Slightly longer than the hyphen, used for the connection of numerals in a range or for complex compound adjectives. Some style guides prefer to insert spaces before and after.
Ranges: such as those found in dates or page ranges. The Copyeditor’s Handbook has some excellent examples (p 109):
The life of John Smith (1873–1945) is discussed on pages 44–47.
The budget for January–April 1997 appears in the May-June issue of the company newsletter.
Complex Compounds: “replaces the hyphen in compound terms when one element of the compound is itself a hyphenated or an open (nonhyphenated) two- or three-word element.” (The Copyeditor’s Handbook, p 108)
The San Francisco–based company posted higher-than-expected earnings.
She presented the reports at the New York–New Jersey symposium.
But in compound adjectives with a prefix attached, a hyphen is used:
The airlines are demanding more training for non-English-speaking air traffic controllers.
The Puctuation Guide says this about the em dash:
The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation comments on the subtle differences created when each of these punctuation marks is used (p 45):
Dashes, like commas, semicolons, colons, ellipses, and parentheses, indicate added emphasis, an interruption, or an abrupt change of thought. Experienced writers know that these marks are not interchangeable. Note how dashes subtly change the tone of the following sentences:
You are the friend, the only friend, who offered to help me.
You are the friend—the only friend—who offered to help me.
I pay the bills; she has all the fun.
I pay the bills—she has all the fun.
I wish you would…oh, never mind.
I wish you would—oh, never mind.
One thing to note is that the em dash adds an extra emphasis that other punctuation softens, and therefore they should be used judiciously. They shouldn’t appear more than twice in a paragraph—or the writing becomes choppy—and your readers might find it difficult to follow—and possibly confusing. (See what I mean?) If you find them appearing too often, it is advisable to vary them with other punctuation, like gentle commas (or perhaps with nonintrusive parentheses). Sometimes the best solution is a rewrite.
Em dashes are also used to show omissions of text. The Chicago Manual of Style explains the rules in chapters 6.90 and 14.64:
6.90 A 2-em dash represents a missing word or part of a word, either omitted to disguise a name (or occasionally an expletive) or else missing from or illegible in quoted or reprinted material. When a whole word is missing, space appears on both sides of the dash. When only part of a word is missing, no space appears between the dash and the existing part (or parts) of the word; when the dash represents the end of a word, a space follows it (unless a period or other punctuation immediately follows).
“The region gives its —— to the language spoken there.”
Admiral N—— and Lady R—— were among the guests.
David H——h [Hirsch?] voted aye.
14.64 For successive entries by the same author, editor, translator, or compiler, a 3-em dash (followed by a period or comma, depending on the presence of an abbreviation such as ed.) replaces the name after the first appearance.
Judt, Tony. A Grand Illusion? An Essay on Europe. New York: Hill and Wang, 1996.
———. Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century. New York: Penguin Press, 2008.
———, ed. Resistance and Revolution in Mediterranean Europe, 1939–1948. New York: Routledge, 1989.
As with all grammar and punctuation topics, it really comes down to practice. The more you are aware of the pitfalls and possible solutions, the more aware you’ll be able to recognize those issues in your own writing—and be able to correct them like a pro.